Sciency Words: Thiea

June 1, 2018

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words.  Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

THEIA

When I wrote about the Nice model, I said it does a nice job (pun intended!) of explaining how the planets of the Outer Solar System started out, and how they ended up where they are today.  But what about the Inner Solar System?  Well, it turns out we may have started with a few more planets than we have today, and one of those hypothetical early planets has been named Theia.

Technically speaking, Theia wouldn’t have been a planet (not according to the I.A.U. definition), but it was definitely planet-sized, perhaps as large as modern day Mars.  But Theia had to share its orbit with another planet that wasn’t technically a planet (yet): Earth.

Theia got stuck near one of Earth’s Lagrange points, about 60 degrees ahead of Earth in Earth’s almost circular orbital path.  There’s some weird gravitational voodoo going on at these Lagrange points, and so this arrangement of Earth and Theia could theortically have remained stable long term.

Except Jupiter and/or Venus disrupted the gravitational balance, pulling Theia a little this way, a little that way, nudging Theia away Earth’s Lagrange point and closer to Earth itself, until one day….

I would call this the worst disaster in Earth’s history, except this collision was sort of the moment when Earth (as we know it) really began.  I gather there’s still a lot of disagreement about the details, like whether this was a head-on collision or more of a glancing blow, but the two really important things to know are:

  • Theia knocked a large amount of Earth debris into space. That debris eventually coalesced to form our Moon.
  • Most of Theia is probably still here.Theia has become part of Earth, and the bulk of Theia may have would up becoming Earth’s core.

This idea that early Earth suffered a cataclysmic collision with another planetary body has been credited to a lot of different people, but it first appeared in the scientific literature in this paper from 1975.  The name Theia wasn’t introduced until much later, in this paper from 2000.

In Greek mythology, Theia was the Titaness who gave birth to the Moon.  That checks out. The name definitely seems appropriate.  In the myth, Theia also gave birth to the Sun.  That part doesn’t match up with the science so well.

But not to worry!  In next week’s episode of Sciency Words, we’ll meet the Sun’s real mother.